In the Saddle: Mass appeal
July 16, 2006
As I stood among a large crowd that lined the Waterfall on Snowmass’ Banzai downhill course Sunday, the man next to me said something poignant as he stared up the mountain.”This is the kind of thing that makes cross-country riders respect downhillers,” he said. While no one said anything for the moments that followed, everyone in the vicinity was in agreement. Heck, just looking at the course scared me. There wasn’t enough body armor in the world that could save me from a trip to AVH if I tried to navigate that, I remember thinking.Hell’s Kitchen – a derailleur-crushing drop into a narrow, tree-lined chute covered by jagged rocks – made me shudder. That was until I followed a path of spectators through a small path in the trees off the Banzai ski trail. That was until I stood at the bottom of Waterfall, and watched as it devoured rider after rider.It’s the last real obstacle standing in the way of a competitor and the finish. Boy, does it stand in the way. It’s the part of the course where speed and quick thinking are pivotal. There’s no room for error – there’s a reason the tree near the bottom is wrapped in a lift tower pad.It’s the part of the course where fans stand a few extra feet behind the white tape. One man learned this the hard way Sunday when a rider lost control after an awkward landing and his bike collided with him. Had it not been for a strategically placed log at the bottom of the fall, I might have been wearing another competitor’s bike as a necklace.There’s no escape here. If riders try to maneuver their way with both hands gripped tightly around their brake levers, odds are they’ll fall over their handlebars and slide for a while. Go too fast, and you’ll eventually be stopped – by a tree. It was a spectacle played out in a natural amphitheater. Fans were as enthusiastic about applauding a rider who completed the section flawlessly as they were to urge on one who had fallen. The emotions of every person surrounding the course ebbed and flowed with each revolution of the bike tires. When I watched one competitor slip, fall off his bike, then land on and subsequently smash a log, I felt my spine spasm. When others careened off course in the direction of solid or sharp objects, you could almost hear people holding their breath. I felt my muscles tighten.”Let’s see if we can watch without putting our hands over our eyes,” one girl near me said.Except for the moments where I had to wipe dirt from my face after a racer’s fall created billowing clouds, my hands were at my sides. I didn’t want to miss a second.